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Chapter 2: The Activistic Basis of Knowledge

7. The Logical Character of History

History in the broadest sense of the term is the totality of human experience. History is experience, and all experience is historical. History comprehends also all the experience of the natural sciences. What characterizes the natural sciences as such is the fact that they approach the material of experience with the category of a strict regularity in the succession of events. History in the narrower sense of the term, i.e., the totality of experience concerning human action, must not and does not refer to this category. This distinguishes it epistemologically from the natural sciences.

Experience is always experience of the past. There is no experience and no history of the future. It would be unnecessary to repeat this truism if it were not for the problem of business forecasting by statisticians, about which something will be said later.7

History is the record of human actions. It establishes the fact that men, inspired by definite ideas, made definite judgments of value, chose definite ends, and resorted to definite means in order to attain the ends chosen, and it deals furthermore with the outcome of their actions, the state of affairs the action brought about.

What distinguishes the sciences of human action from the natural sciences is not the events investigated, but the way they are looked upon. The same event appears different when seen in the light of history and when seen in the light of physics or biology. What interests the historian in a case of murder or in a fire is not what interests the physiologist or the chemist if they are not acting as experts for a court of law. To the historian the events of the external world that are studied by the natural sciences count only as far as they affect human action or are produced by it.

The ultimate given in history is called individuality. When the historian reaches the point beyond which he cannot go farther, he refers to individuality. He "explains" an event—the origin of an idea or the performance of an action—by tracing it back to the activity of one man or of a multitude of men. Here he faces the barrier that prevents the natural sciences from dealing with the actions of men, viz., our inability to learn how definite external events produce in the minds of men definite reactions, i.e., ideas and volitions.

Futile attempts have been made to trace back human action to factors that can be described by the methods of the natural sciences. Stressing the fact that the urge to preserve one's own life and to propagate one's own species is inwrought in every creature, hunger and sex were proclaimed as the foremost or even as the only springs of human action. However, one could not deny that there prevail considerable differences between the way in which these biological urges affect the behavior of man and that of nonhuman beings and that man, besides aiming at satisfying his animal impulses, is also intent upon attaining other ends that are specifically human and therefore usually styled higher ends. That the physiological structure of the human body—first of all the appetites of the belly and of the sex glands—affects the choices of acting man has never been forgotten by the historians. After all, man is an animal. But he is the acting animal; he chooses between conflicting ends. It is precisely this that is the theme both of praxeology and of history.

  • 7. See below, p. 67.